Developing a research agenda for
digital game-based L2 learning
Jon Reinhardt
U Arizona
Why games?
• Digital games have grown quite popular worldwide, and are
diversifying in genre types (e.g. social games, MMORPGs),
audiences (e.g. older, female), design origin, even language
availability (Reinhardt, 2013).
• With increasing practice, more applied linguists and L2TL
researchers are focusing on the area, with recent edited
volumes (Reinders, 2012), special journal issues--ReCALL
24(3) by Cornillie, Thorne, & Desmet (2012), and LL&T 18(2)
by Reinhardt & Sykes (in press), and monographs (Peterson,
2013; Sykes & Reinhardt, 2012)
• What has been found? Are digital games effective L2
learning environments? How does one research gamemediated L2TL?
Meta-analysis  Research synthesis
• The purpose of a meta-analysis is to synthesize
results across comparable studies.
• Problem: There aren’t enough well-designed,
empirical, experimental, quantitative studies
where ‘game-based’ is the independent variable.
Also, there’s no agreement on what a ‘game’ is.
• So, the purpose became to synthesize findings
and identify trends in research, rather than to
compare game-mediated with non gamemediated L2TL.
Synthesis features
• Recent: Published within last decade (2002-2012)
• Inclusionary: Focus on empirical (experimental and
descriptive), including pedagogical/classroom-based.
• Ongoing: 35 studies identified and 28 analyzed so far, from
13 journals and several edited volumes and conference
proceedings, on 10 different parameters
• Parameters aligned with those used in CALL meta-analyses,
e.g. functional metaphors (Levy’s tutor-tool, etc.) or SLA
paradigms (Kern & Warschauer’s structural-sociocognitive,
• Other parameters are unique to games, e.g. COTS vs. SIE
(or enhanced vs. based; Reinhardt & Sykes, 2012), game
design elements (Cornillie, Thorne, & Desmet, 2012)
1. SLA approach (e.g. behaviorist, cognitive, sociocognitive)
2. Research context (e.g. formal, informal, pedagogical)
3. Research method (e.g. experimental, corpus analysis, discourse analysis)
4. Measures & instruments (e.g. pre-/post-tests, transcripts, interviews,
questionnaires, game logs, observations, videos)
5. L2TL focus (vocabulary, interaction, reading, listening, speaking, culture,
6. Language (e.g. EFL, ESL, Spanish, German, etc.)
Unique to digital games
7. Game function and study purpose (game-enhanced/game-based,
8. Game genre (e.g. role play, action, adventure, simulation, MMORPG)
9. Game design element (e.g. context, narrative, collaboration, motivation)
10. Learner perception: focus of goal-orienting activity (game, player,
Synthesized findings:
Affordances of games in L2TL
• repetition and redundancy of input (deHaan, 2005; McGraw, Yoshimoto, &
Seneff, 2009; Piiranen-Marsh & Tainio, 2009)
• environment for collaboration and negotiation (Hanson, 2005; Reinders &
Wattana, 2012; Rama et al., 2012; Thorne & Fischer, 2012; Peterson, 2012)
• increased confidence and willingness to communicate and take risks
(Reinders & Wattana, 2012; Zheng et al., 2009)
• co-action, languaging, and alignment (Piiranen-Marsh & Tainio, 2009;
Zheng, Newgarden, & Young, 2012; Peterson, 2012)
• development of :
– pragmatic competence (Sykes 2009; 2010)
– lexical competence (Miller & Hegelheimer, 2006; Ranalli, 2008; Verhallen &
Bus, 2010; Müller, 2013)
– critical and digital literacies (Lacasa, Mendez, & Martinez, 2008; Alexander,
2009; deHaan, 2011; Reinhardt & Zander, 2011)
– (inter)cultural competence (Thorne, 2008; Neville, Shelton, & McInnis, 2009;
O’Brien, Levy, & Orich, 2009)
– narrative competence (Hanson, 2005; Holden & Sykes, 2011)
Synthesized findings:
Challenges and potentials
• Task-based L2 pedagogy can be successfully matched with gamemediated learning (Miller & Hegelheimer, 2006; Ranalli, 2008;
O’Brien, Levy, & Orich, 2009; Reinhardt & Zander, 2011).
• Game texts, paratexts and attendant discourses can be linguistically
diverse and highly complex (Thorne, Fischer, & Lu, 2012).
• Online gaming spaces are used informally for autonomous L2
learning (Thorne & Fischer, 2012).
• Students who play EFL games outside of class tend to have higher
EFL proficiency than those who don’t (Sylven & Sundqvist, 2012).
• In some game genres, players may focus on rules at the expense of
language (deHaan, Reed, & Kuwada, 2010).
• Learners may resist game-mediated L2 learning if perceived as 'nonserious' (Reinhardt & Zander, 2011).
• There may be a disconnect between teacher beliefs and gamerlearner practices with regards to DGB L2 learning (Chik, 2012).
Results: CALL categories
Synthesis: CALL parameters
Empirical research on game-mediated L2TL has:
• taken a variety of approaches, about half behaviorist+
cognitive, half socio-cognitive
• used a variety of methods, about half experimental, half
discourse analysis (probably correlates to approach)
• used mostly questionnaires, post-tests, and analysis of
student work and chat transcripts (again correlating to
method), with less use of game logs, game records,
recorded game sessions, analysis of game texts, paratexts,
and attendant discourses.
• focused mostly on reading, vocabulary, and interaction,
with less attention to grammar, culture, & pragmatics
• focused mostly on English…
Results: Game parameters
Synthesis: Game-unique categories
Empirical game-mediated L2TL research has also:
• focused primarily on game design elements that
align with L2TL tenets, like context, narrative,
collaboration, motivation, and interactivity.
• focused on the design of, learning with, and the
pedagogy of, COTS games as well as SIEs.
• worked with game genres most aligned with L2TL
tenets, like MMORPGs, simulation, and adventure
Research perspective
Studies seem to take one of three perspectives:
1) SLA-agnostic research focused on game-based design
2) descriptive or experimental research on pedagogical
integration and implementation
3) descriptions of player activity
Agency is privileged in the:
1) game design
2) pedagogy or instruction
3) player-learner
From synthesis to agenda:
Where to start?
• Which game? build, modify, or adapt?
MMORPGs, simulations, adventure, role play?
• Which setting? learning ‘in the wild’ or
pedagogy in the classroom?
• Which frameworks? socio-cognitive, cognitive,
behaviorist? experimental, case studies,
• Which perspective? game, instruction, player?
• Game as activity
Game genre & features
• Which game and which features? Is the RQ about a genre, a
game title, or a feature across titles and/or genres?
• Game genres are fluid and one game may mix features from a
variety of genres (e.g. time pressure, narrative, feedback type,
affordance for player-player interaction, etc.)
• build your own game: Cornillie, Clarebout, & Desmet, 2012
(+ customization, - inauthentic)
• use an existing game: Hitosugi, Schmidt, & Hayashi, 2014
(+ authentic, - many variables)
• adapt an existing game: Reinders & Wattana, 2012
(+ semi-authentic, allows customization, - game may lose functional
Study setting
• In what setting? How does this align with other aspects
of the research?
• Setting will impact the generalizability and ecological
validity of the findings
• In classroom—as main or secondary instruction?
mandatory or optional? (e.g. Reinhardt, Warner, &
Lange, in press; Miller & Hegelheimer, 2006)
• Formally—in experimental or lab contexts? (e.g. Sylven
& Sundqvist, 2012; Peterson, 2012)
• Informally—‘in the wild’, as played in everyday
contexts? (e.g. Thorne, 2008; Piirainen-Marsh & Tainio,
• Which SLA or other theories, and which methods, should
be used?
• Games can be understood metaphorically as tutors, tools,
or ecologies, and some game designs and features privilege
particular frameworks (Reinhardt & Thorne, in press).
• Game as tutor (e.g. deHaan, 2005; Miller & Hegelheimer,
2006) (e.g. simulations  cognitive frameworks)
• Game as tool for interaction (e.g. Zheng et al., 2009; Rama
et al., 2012) (e.g. MMORPGs  social frameworks)
• Game as ecology (e.g. Thorne, Fischer, & Lu, 2012; Chik,
2012) (e.g. games with active communities  ecological
• Game as method, a.k.a. gameful L2TL or ‘gamification’
• From which perspective(s)? Game, player, and/or instruction?
• Game design: feedback, narrative, choice provision, repetition,
– Which designs lead to which behaviors? Which behaviors afford what
kinds of L2 learning?
• Player-learner: gender, age, L2 proficiency, gaming
experience/expertise, gameplay style
– Who are L2 game player-learners? How do individual differences impact
attitudes, motivation, and learning outcomes?
• L2 Pedagogy: integration into game, curricular integration, role of
teacher or curriculum, pedagogical approach (game as tutor, tool,
ecology, etc.)
– How can a game be integrated into formal learning contexts? How does
the nature of integration impact learning? What role does instructor play?
Game as activity
The player-learner:
• How can player-learner variables (motivation, gender, proficiency, gaming
experience, gaming preferences) be examined in an ecologically valid way,
i.e., without players losing agency and ‘gameful’ disposition?
The game:
• Which game designs, rules and narratives, afford what sorts of L2 learning,
and how? What role does pedagogical mediation play?
Other players:
• How does the social aspect of gameplay impact learning? What designs
afford what kinds and qualities of social interaction?
The instruction:
• What is the relationship between gaming literacies and other L2 literacies,
both traditional and new? How do gaming literacies develop through
naturalistic and pedagogically-mediated gameplay?
The end:
• What are the tensions between learning and playing? How does context of
gameplay (e.g. in a classroom) impact player-learner motivation or
learning outcomes? When does gameplay become ‘gamework’ in the mind
of the player-learner?
Needs and Opportunities
• more empirical research, though not necessarily to
compare game-mediated with non game-mediated,
but in recognition of the increased popularity of
• more research focused on where game design and L2LT
meet (e.g. goal orientation, feedback, interaction,
motivation, narrative)
• more research on digital games in L2 pedagogy (e.g.
integration of COTS games, student-led game design,
game-informed task design)
• more focus on game-mediated L2TL as ecology (i.e.
consideration of gaming as socio-literacy practice)
Thank you
[email protected]
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